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Laser game-changers in Middle Eastern warfare

By Amb. Dore Gold
web posted April 25, 2022

Israeli laser systemIn the history of warfare, game-changers were not always designed to  have that effect. But sometimes they had a profound impact on the course  of warfare. Defense Minister Benny Gantz has commented on the latest  Israeli anti-missile laser test: “energy-based weapons with a powerful  laser are, in my opinion, a very significant game-changer…”

When Israel upgraded its Air Force in the 1960’s, it wasn’t designed  to be the decisive arm of the IDF. That was left to the armored corps  and Israel’s tank units. In the Six Day War, the exceptional performance  of the Israeli Air Force, particularly in the Sinai Peninsula, led many  to see Israel’s Mirage fighters as a new decisive weapon. However, by  1973 a new weapon was seen as taking over the future battlefield: the  ballistic missile.

General Chaim Herzog wrote the authoritative history of the outbreak  of the Yom Kippur War, he traced it to the supply of Soviet SCUD  missiles to Egypt just before the war. The Scud had an attribute which  was lacking from the Egyptian Air Force at the time: assured  penetrability of Israel’s air space.

From then on, Israel had to find a way to neutralize the ballistic  missiles in its adversaries’ weapons stocks. Until that time, in the  ongoing struggle between offense and defense on the Arab-Israeli  battlefield, the Scud gave offense a built-in advantage. It was dirt  cheap, costing a few hundred dollars. And in the last decade Hamas and  its sister terror groups have been able to pound Israeli cities with  near impunity. Something was needed to deny these organizations the new  advantages they were obtaining with the weapons they were using.

Now, with production of a new generation anti-missile system based on  lasers something entirely different is being introduced into the  military balance. The US and Israel worked together on the Nautilus  laser in 1996. They tested the system at the White Sands testing range  in New Mexico. True, it downed everything that was thrown at it from  mortar shells to actual rockets. But it was cumbersome and its  technology was not yet ready to make the strategic difference that  Israel sought. Nonetheless, the lower cost of laser defense is part of  the new advantage that it could provide to Israel if its technology will  be judged as being ripe.

With Iron Dome, for example, each Tamir interceptor shot can cost  $80,000 per missile. If the IDF wanted to save money and make its  missile defense units more cost-effective, it had to find a formula for  using them more sparingly, firing them only when it was determined that  the destructive results of an incoming attack warranted their use. That  was the technological breakthrough with Iron Dome, because it could  discern when a Hamas rocket would hit a populated area or would just  explode in an empty part of desert with no casualties or damage to  property.

Today, when the latest-generation laser defense is used, then the  military calculus of Israel can change radically. The cost of each laser  shot drops down significantly to less than $5.00 (NIS 15), according to  Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.

There is another factor that needs to be taken into account. The  strategic background of the last effort to develop laser defenses was  the Cold War. The West recognized that the Warsaw Pact was examining how  to deny NATO the ability to reinforce its armies by using ballistic  missiles against them. Today, the strategic context has changed. Rockets  and ballistic missiles are being employed by Iranian proxy forces like  Hezbollah, Hamas, and especially the Houthis in Yemen.

The Houthis have also successfully fired armed drones at the heart of  Riyadh and at Abu Dhabi. Unquestionably, Bahrain and Kuwait are next in  line having faced active insurgencies in the last few years. There is a  collective interest among Israel and the Gulf states to deny Iranian  allies the ability to hit their most sensitive infrastructures. The  Abraham Accords have created new regional possibilities for marrying up  Israeli technology with the financial power of the Arab Gulf states.  This is the real game-changer that is emerging now. ESR

Ambassador Dore Gold has served as President of the Jerusalem Center for  Public Affairs since 2000. From June 2015 until October 2016 he served  as Director-General of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  Previously he served as Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister  Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Ambassador to the UN (1997-1999), and as an  advisor to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.


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